by Chris Ritter
I was in Fareway, our local grocery store, this week when a woman approached me and asked, “Do you work here?” I was pushing my shopping cart. My shopping list was in my hands. Fareway has a very set uniform of black pants and white shirts, neither of which I was wearing. I told her that I was not an employee but would glad to help her anyway that I could. She was looking for the split peas and I happened to know where they were. But I couldn’t help but consider, “What made her think I worked there?”
I was in line at Chipotle a couple weeks ago and the gentleman serving me make an unsolicited comment: “You look like a professor.” I smiled. But I ate my burrito bowl thinking about what he meant by that. Did he mean I look wise… old… pale… nutty? Maybe I am overthinking things.
Jesus said that his followers would give off a distinctive vibe that would be hard to miss. In the same sermon, he warned against trying to look particularly religious with loud prayers, trumpeted offerings, or a pious grimace that signals self-sacrifice. We don’t need to go around looking more Catholic than the pope… or like we have been baptized in pickle juice.
But we are to radiate… to communicate something with our very lives. One more time, let’s look at this key passage from the Sermon on the Mount:
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.Matthew 5:13-16 (NIV)
The days are getting shorter, aren’t they? I was speaking with a friend about this and someone joined our conversation to complain that he comes to work in the dark and drives home in the dark. There are days he never gets to see the sun.
We live in dark times.
When I say that, I am not speaking of the lack of sunlight or even the presence of pandemics and contentious elections. Things like this will always be with us this side of Kingdom Come. I say these are dark times because we seem to be moving further away from the light. This year, 2020, has squeezed us all… and it is not always pretty what has come out.
Cursing the darkness leads to… accursed darkness. The only real solution is light. Followers of Jesus can never just sit back and say, “Tsk. Tsk. Isn’t that a pity?” We have to pierce the darkness. We must get out of the saltshaker and into the world.
Rod Dreher wrote an interesting bestseller called The Benedict Option in which he advises the church assume an intentional monastic stance toward our changing culture. Some have interpreted Dreher’s writings as a call to “pull up the drawbridge.” I don’t think Jesus really leaves that option available to us. He calls us to be salt and light. I am inspired by what we might call “The Wesley Option.”
In the 1700’s, there was a huge revival that impacted both sides of the Atlantic. In America, the revival was called The Great Awakening. Central figures were George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards. On the British side, it was called the Evangelical Revival or Methodist Revival and the central figures were John and Charles Wesley. These were times of huge social change, the effects of which can still be felt. Many of our Ivy League institutions were founded to supply pastors and other leaders for the explosive growth in church and mission organizations.
But it wasn’t that people were going to church. Their faith was changing the moral landscape. One secular historian noted that a bloody revolution like the one in France would have happened in England were it not for the sweeping moral change brought about by the Methodist Revival. People organized into Methodist societies where they were shaped by the teachings of scripture. The revival was a national change of heart.
New energy was injected into the cause for the abolition of slavery. You may know that the hymn “Amazing Grace” was written by a former slave trader who turned to Christ. He inspired a generation of younger leaders, like William Wilberforce, who (in spite of deteriorating health) successfully championed the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.
The last letter we have from John Wesley is a note of encouragement to Wilberforce. Six days before his death, Wesley wrote:
Dear Sir: Unless the divine power has raised you up to be as “Athanasius against the world”, I see not how you can go through your glorious enterprise in opposing that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature. Unless God has raised you up for this very thing, you will be worn out by the opposition of men and devils. But if God be for you, who can be against you? Are all of them together stronger than God? O be not weary of well doing! Go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it. That he who has guided you from youth up may continue to strengthen you in this and all things, is the prayer of, dear sir, Your affectionate servant, John Wesley
The City of Geneseo, you may remember, was founded by a group of Christian pioneers who wanted to use their city to support the Abolition of Slavery. A group of 38 men, women, and children set out from Geneseo, New York in 1836 to evangelize the West. They signed a statement that they would oppose slavery before they joined the journey westward. They wanted to be salt and light
Women’s rights, including the right to vote, was an offshoot of the revival. Child labor laws, prison reforms, the humane care of the handicapped and mentally ill came as a result of the Awakening. Say what you want about the failed social experiment of Temperance, but it was a response by Christians to the degrading effects of alcohol on our society… mainly led by women who didn’t want to see the family pay check drank away.
Of course, Bible-reading Christians know that the world does not change just by adjusting our laws. It has to be a matter of the heart. If you aim for social change, but don’t address the heart, you get cancel culture, shame, and resentment. If you address the human heart, social change is sure to follow. Sometimes I think we are guilty of trying to change by statute what can only be done through determined prayer.
And this gets us to our mission as disciples of Jesus Christ. A broken world needs a strong, loving, active, salty, distinctive, engaged church. The world does not need the church. The world needs Jesus. And the Church is the God-ordained, organic, embodied means of delivering the Good News.
I believe the Church right now is in the midst of a sort of Reformation. COVID-19 has caused us to take a fresh look at everything we are doing. Over the years we have picked up habits that are not serving the mission. It is time to edit, to get back to basics. My favorite definition of insanity is, “Doing the same thing over and over, and expecting different results.”
Throughout this message series, we have been exploring our individual contribution to the mission. When someone joins the church, we ask that they have a pattern of faithful attendance, a ministry in which they are involved, a small group in which they are supported, a habit of financial support, and a daily practice of prayer. They then vow to continue their support by their: Prayers, Presence, Gifts, Service, and Witness.
We conclude our series with the discipline that feeds all the others: Effective, fervent prayer. Prayer is the engine room of the church. Because there is no light without God, there is no light without prayer. John Wesley said, “God does nothing except in response to believing prayer.”
I have a friend that always lights a candle when she prays. It helps her stay focused… and it reminds her that all true light comes from God. We Christians are not the sun. We are more like the moon. We have no light of our own. We can only reflect God’s light.
Today I want to conclude this message series with prayers that “turn the lights on.”
“God, let me see your light.”
You don’t have to get very far in scripture before you see the strong connection between God and light. The Bible is book-ended by the light of God. Both the epistles and Gospel of John love the metaphor of light in association with Jesus.
5 This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. 7 But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.1 John 1:5-7
Walking in the light means walking with God. We need to pray daily to see God’s light.
4 In him [Jesus, the Word] was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.John 1:4,5,9
Jesus is the true light of God that shines in our world. No amount of darkness can stop Jesus from shining.
When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”John 8:12
Jesus used the occasion of the healing of a blind man to offer the light of life that only he can give.
“Lord, let your light shine on me.”
Like salt, light changes what it touches. In 2 Samuel 22:29, David prayed, “You, Lord, are my lamp; the Lord turns my darkness into light.” The king knew that God’s presence was the difference-maker in his life.
In John 3, a religious leader came to Jesus at night so that he would not be seen publicly with this controversial new rabbi. Jesus said to him:
19 This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21 But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.John 3:19-21 (NIV)
Light can be an uncomfortable thing. It exposes. It reveals our flaws. Have you ever dragged your furniture out of your house for carpet cleaning, or maybe for a yard sale? All the flaws become visible. But the same God who shines his light is also in the restoration business. The goal is not shame, but healing.
8 For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light 9 (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) 10 and find out what pleases the Lord. 11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. 13 But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. 14 This is why it is said:
“Wake up, sleeper,Ephesians 5:8-14
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”
“God, light my path.”
In Psalm 36, David told God, “In your light, we see light.” As we pray for God’s light, we are asking that God will illuminate the path ahead so that we can make decisions that lead to life and God’s glory.
This is why God’s Word is so closely associated with light. Psalm 119:105 says, “Your Word is a lamp for my feet, a light for my path.” Light is something to walk in and navigate by.
But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.1 John 1:7 (NIV)
The more we walk in God’s light, the better the view ahead of us:
The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day.Proverbs 4:18
“Lord, let those in darkness see your light.”
Paul wrote to the church in Corinth about the blindness that comes along with unbelief:
3 And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. 4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.2 Corinthians 4:3-6 (NIV)
We all, perhaps, have a beloved prodigal in our lives. Maybe someone reading this is that prodigal. A great way to pray is to ask God to make the light of the Gospel shine in such a way as to open darkened eyes. Let’s pray that his light would shine in hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God’s glory.”
When Jesus came onto the scene, Matthew announces that with a quote from Isaiah:
the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”Matthew 4:16, quoting Isaiah 9:2
“Lord, let my light shine for you.”
The closer we get to the light of God, the more we reflect that light to the world around us.
1 Thessalonians 5
5 You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. 6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. 7 For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. 8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.1 Thessalonians 5:5-8
To live for Jesus is to remain in his marvelous light:
But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.1 Peter 2:9
Light is not only our present reality, it is our future. I love the description of eternal blessedness found at the very end of our canon of sciptures:
22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it.Revelation 21:22-24
I close today with this prayer by Mary Beth Thomas:
God, with you there is no darkness. Your character has no shadows, and you are pure and good. Yet in our broken world, we see so much darkness around us. Pain, sickness, and disease are in our community and in many of our homes.
Bring your light and restoring presence to the dark places in our lives. Bring your hope to hearts that feel defeated. Bring your love and compassion to those in pain.
Give us faith to say with the psalmist, “Lord, you light my lamp; my God illuminates my darkness.” May your light of hope shine in the darkness for families today. Show us glimpses of your presence with us and the comfort you bring.
In the busyness of today, help us to take a moment to be still and sit with you. To slow down, breathe deeply, and release our burdens to your strong hand. You are trustworthy, good, and true, and we thank you for caring for us so deeply and beautifully. Open our eyes to see you at work today. Give us your light.
In Jesus name, Amen.